authors note: this is fiction, but i tried to base it on some fact. for example, she did actually go to live in syracuse, sicily in exile. and she did write poems about women. some thinkCleïs was sapphosdaughter, but this is ... i wrote this for my extension english class, itsmeant to be an appropriation of the pygmalion ... enjoy. :)
disclaimer: the poetry bits belong to sappho. i also added a bit to her poetry...but yeah. basically the good stuff? its hers. :)
- my name is sappho -
My name is Sappho.
I am sitting on the verandah in the marble terrace that is my prison, watching the last crimson rays disappear from the horizon as the night sets in. The stone is cold beneath my ringed toes as they jingle to a tune only they know.
"Madam? It is dinner now. He wants to know if you would like to eat." My servant girl, Anactoria, comes into view.
"Tell him I won't eat tonight." My voice is weary, as everything else in my body is, with age.
"But Mad-"she protests, but I cut her off.
"It's alright, Ana. I am not eating tonight because I am already full."
"He will get angry, ma'am," she replies, lids lowered. I stare out into the horizon, over the roofs of Sicily, and she leaves. How I miss Lesbos! It has been five years since I have last seen my beloved isle, and I still remember it vividly. The soft grass beneath my feet as I ran through the fields… I used to be beautiful then. My mother always said I would marry well. Dark eyes and an even darker mane of beautiful long hair which followed me as I ran. I remembered my wedding day, the crowds of people who came to celebrate. My family was wealthy, and this was the wedding of the year. I loved him, truly I did. His name is Theseus, and he has become the old man who demands that I eat. We have changed. I was the beautiful young woman excited about starting my new life with my husband, as all young Greek girls are. He was a dashing wealthy merchant who owned his own business, with a sparkle in his bright green eyes reserved, it seemed, only for me. He was away a lot, and that made me lonely. He urged me to find myself some company, and asked me to teach a few local girls how to play the lyre, of which I was renowned for in the city. With reluctance I started taking on a few students, girls of course, because I could never take a male without vicious webs of rumours spun.
I taught five girls how to play the lyre in my home in Lesbos. These girls were daughters of friends of mine and each was thirteen at the time, nearly ripe for the harvest of marriage. I taught one at a time, and they all stayed with me a year. The first was Persis and the last, whom I dearly loved, was Cleïs. Cleïs was by far the most troublesome of the five girls, but also the girl with the keenest ear for music. She loved it from the minute she walked through the door and heard me play; her face was spellbound by the magical notes strung like some enchantment had taken over her. Also the most unruly of the five girls, passion sparked her young voice and she would not be afraid to argue with me as the others were. When she thought I was teaching her wrongly, she pouted and immediately stopped.
"Are you sure that's right?" she would ask, narrowing her eyes like a hawk. I would sigh at her disrespect.
"Who is the teacher here, you or me?" She would scowl angrily at my words and reluctantly place her slender fingers back on the strings. Oh, but to hear her play! It was natural, a rare quality to find, and it flowed and sounded like angels skipping pebbles along a calm sea. This angry, passionate young woman treated those strings with the uttermost gentleness as a mother would treat her babe. Her strings were like an extension of herself, her delicate fingers reached out to stroke them into telling them her secrets. I moulded her within that year she spent with me from nothing but a beautiful piece of clay into a fine statue even Pygmalion would have been proud of. She had talent, but as every creator knows, talent without discipline, and even worse, respect for its maker is worthless.
Despite her arrogance I came to love and adore the girl dearly, not as a mother loves her own blood, but as one loves another with their whole body, mind and soul, and longs for that love to be returned. Theseus had been away far too long, and his place in my heart – had he ever beenin my heart? - was overtaken by this girl who could tame the quivering string with just the light touch of her fingertips. I would often compose poetry about her, verses written to be accompanied by the lyre, the instrument sacred to us in my mind.
Far sweeter than the throbbing lyre in sound,
A voice more golden than gold, new found.
To all this, Cleïs was oblivious. She did not hear my heart throb whenever she walked into the room. She did not feel the fluttering butterflies in my stomach every time she smiled at me. She did not see the blush which set my cheeks aflame when her hand brushed mine. She was unaware, not capable of even comprehending the love that grew for her daily inside of me. To her, I was merely didaskalos, teacher, but to me she was agapetos, beloved.
As the days passed into weeks, and the weeks passed into months, something had to be done. I could no longer look at her with love and find that there was nothing in her eyes which echoed it back. One morning I walked by myself into the city. Bumbling merchants and servants rushed by, eager to get to their work before the day grew even hotter. I walked passed the stalls set up on the sides of the dirt roads selling silks, spices, vegetables. Cries of zealous shop owners rang out. "A bargain! A bargain for you, ma'am!" I kept walking passed them but stopped abruptly while people behind me called out in protest. A silver flash had caught my eye. Turning to inspect it closer, I noticed an old woman sitting behind the wooden stall that housed her merchandise. I nodded a polite hello to show my respect for the elderly. She smiled surreptitiously, her wrinkled skin sagging. The wind blew and the charms and jewellery sang to its tune. The silver flash that had caught my eye was dangling on the far left. It was a charm, made out of silver, in the form of a swan, craning its neck.
"You are looking for something, eh?" the old woman had strode up behind me as I was looking at the charm.
"Yes," I said. "How much is th-"
"No, I don't mean that. You are looking for something else… something to give you a wish." She smiled and looked at me expectantly. How did this old woman know what I was looking for? This was too scary for my liking, I had to get out, I had to run awa-
"Go to the temple of Aphrodite. Pray to her, give her offerings. She has heard your thoughts, Sappho, she will grant you your wish." The old lady pulled down the swan charm and placed it in my hands. She smiled as she patted my hand, her rough skin sending shivers up my back. I smiled in wonder and ran out of the market place.
The next day I was out in the early morn, just after sunrise, heading in the opposite direction to the temple of Aphrodite. The sun had just peeked out over the horizon, fresh and without the burning radiance it would have later in the day. The isle of Lesbos was still in slumber, there were few awake at this hour. I walked through the city and onto the outskirts. Here was the temple of Aphrodite – built hundreds of years ago but still standing strong. It was one of the first built in Eressos, many were avid patrons of the lovely goddess. I climbed the hill to the top where the temple stood. The white marble columns and waft of sweet burning incense greeted me as I took off my shoes to enter the holy place. Statues of Aphrodite adorned the inside, hymns could be heard softly sung in the background. A priestess appeared before me, clad in a flowing white dress. Many girls were consecrated to Aphrodite at an early age; it was an honour to be chosen.
"Many blessings to you today!" she said, head bowed, and I bowed my own.
"I was looking to make an offering." She nodded and led me through a curtained archway. There were more candles burning here and a stone altar. I gave her thirty gold coins and she placed them on the altar, murmuring a few prayers. She then left me alone in the sanctum to pray, closing the curtain behind her. I bent on my knees, head bowed before the altar.
'Daughter of Zeus,
Queen of the broidered throne,
distress'd I pray thee,
Weaver of wiles,
break not my heart with anguish,
O Goddess, hear me!
Let her love me, Goddess.
O let her love me!'
After the prayer, I lit a stick of incense. The aroma swirled in the air and I began to feel dizzy. A vision appeared before me - the beautiful Goddess herself. She stood before me, long golden hair flowing around her body. Her skin was perfect, smooth and untouched by the sun. Perfect round eyes probed my soul, a sensuous mouth smiled. I stooped down low, my head nearly touching the ground. She put a slender finger on my head and I looked into those piercing blue eyes that had bewitched so many. Ares! Adonis! Paris! Now I understand how you chose Aphrodite to give that treacherous golden apple to – it was not for Helen but for the favour of the fair Aphrodite! She read my thoughts and smiled. I opened to mouth to say something, anything, but she spoke instead.
'Why weepest thou? What is befallen?
Whom wouldst thy heart and beauty
draw to love thee?
Who wrongs thee, Sappho?
She who spurns gifts shall give;
who flies shall follow;
If she loves not, unwilling soon shall love thee.'
With that, she took my hand and pressed it to her bosom. She was gone.
I walked back home wondering all the way if I had gone temporarily insane while still hoping that I hadn't and I really did see the Fair One. I stepped onto the verandah of the house and there was Cleïs, playing a melody on the lyre. Her eyes were transfixed on the strings, her fingers flew. She stopped once I came into view.
"Sappho." Her voice was soft, but I heard it. It was there, hanging on the breeze, an open invitation for me. Still, I needed affirmation.
"What did you say, Cleïs?" I asked, my voice wavering with uncertainty.
"Sappho," she repeated again, more strongly this time. Her eyes met mine, and in that moment, we knew. Suddenly we were in each other's arms. How I longed for this day! I thought I would die from happiness, but the only thing that kept me from doing that were her sweet kisses. I sent up a prayer of gratitude to Aphrodite, and got lost in my beloved's arms.
Theseus came home the next week. I hadn't seen him in nearly six months. He came home in a rage, he had heard about Cleïs and I. The servants liked to gossip, and word spread fast to the master of the house. He banished her from the house, despite my perpetual weeping. I refused to eat, to drink, to bathe. My once beautiful hair was oily with tears and dirt. I refused to look at him or speak to him. He struck me over and over again.
Our affair had tarnished Cleïs's reputation. She could no longer get married. At thirteen she was thrown out of the house and disowned, she took only her lyre and the clothes on her back. The servants told me she could be seen on the street corner, playing her lyre for money. I was forbidden to leave the house and no one could come to see me. We were over. Still…still… I kept reliving everything about her. Every moment. Every touch. Every look. I wrote poetry. Verses of longing, remorse, love. To Cleïs and only for Cleïs. How could Aphrodite be so cruel? Snatching her away from me after only seven days of heaven. She must have been jealous of the love we had. I cursed her angrily.
The following spring, Aphrodite responded my curse with her own. A rebellion against the aristocracy had arisen, and our stony household was forced to move to Sicily in shameful exile.
The moon replaced the last dying rays as I sat on my verandah in Sicily. The night turns cold, and soon it is dark all around. I watch the city as lights flare up, one by one. I shift in my seat, trying to get warm, and something falls on the ground. I bend down, the chair creaking, and pick it up. It is the swan charm, fallen from its place around my neck. I put it back on, it is cold and makes me shiver. Then I settle back into my chair and watch the stars in the night sky, hoping that somewhere out there my beloved is watching them too.